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    Suicide & Supervision: Issues for Probation Practice

    Borrill, J., Cook, L.C. and Beck, A.

    This is a copy of the accepted author manuscript of the following article: Borrill, J., Cook,

    L.C. and Beck, A. 2016. Suicide & Supervision: Issues for Probation Practice. Probation

    Journal. Published online before print November 17, 2016, doi:


    Minor amendments may have been made before final publication.

    The final, definitive version is available from the publisher:

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  • Suicide and Supervision: issues for probation practice.


    Suicides by offenders in the community have been relatively under-researched in comparison

    with prison suicides. This study examined in depth the events and experiences of 28 service

    users under probation supervision, based on continuous records from the start of their

    sentence to their death by suicide. The study presents novel findings through mapping

    suicidal behaviour onto the probation supervision process, and demonstrates the complex

    pathways leading to suicide in this population. Key issues identified include missed

    appointments, the impact of legal proceedings, changes in supervision, and the importance of

    recording risk.

    Key Words

    Deaths; suicide; supervision; probation; service users; risk; legal proceedings; training


    Suicidal behaviour by offenders under probation supervision in the community has been

    relatively under-researched and addressed in comparison with prison suicides, (Mackenzie,

    Borrill, Dewart, 2001). This is despite evidence from Sattar (2001) found that in England and

    Wales, that community offender suicide rates were then seven to eight times higher than the

    general population rates, and also slightly higher than for prisoners, while. Pratt et al (2006)

    also found that offenders who had been recently released from prison into the community had

    higher rates of suicide than the general population. More recently, King (2011) noted that 20%

    of suicides by people in contact with the Criminal Justice System in England and Wales within

    the last 12 months, were being supervised by probation. A review of deaths by offenders under

  • community supervision during 2009-10 reported 104 deaths by suicide (Gelsthorpe, Padfield,

    Philps (2012), representing 14% of probation deaths that year. It is notable that figures from

    the Prison & Probation Ombudsman (2015) show that self-inflicted deaths by offenders in

    probation AApproved PPremises (APs) are rare, reducing from 5 in 2011 to zero in 2014.

    Regarding suicidal thoughts, Furthermore, Pluck & Brooker (2014) found that in one probation

    area of England more than 30% of probation service users reported having attempted suicide

    at some time in their life. Based on the small percentage of prisoners who appear to disclose

    their suicidal thoughts to professionals (Slade, Edelman, Worrall, Bray, 2014), the figures for

    probation service users reporting suicidal thoughts are also likely to be an underestimate. The

    few studies of probation service users who experienced suicidal thoughts or attempts have

    identified some potential risk factors, including previous self-harm ( Gunter et al 2011; Wessly

    et al 1996) and , childhood trauma (Gunter et al 2011). Despite, the low level of suicides in

    approved premises, and mental health problems have been highlighted among probation

    service users residing in APs approved premises ( Hatfield et al 2005; Pluck & Brooker 2014).

    At the time of the current study, probation services were provided by 35 probation trusts across

    England and Wales. The trusts were responsible for overseeing offenders released from prison

    on licence and those on community sentences. Supervision on a community order, could be

    combined with other requirements for example, unpaid work, curfew, and certain group-work

    programmes. Alternatively some requirements could stand alone without additional

    supervision. Requirements could be constructive, for example, drug or alcohol treatment or

    restrictive, for example, prohibited activity and curfew. The role of the Offender Manager

    involved coordinating the sentence; assessing and managing risk (re-offending, serious harm

    to others and risk to self), monitoring progress; ensuring compliance and enforcing sentences.

  • One aspect of probation supervision involves identifying and recording risk of suicide. The

    Offender Assessment (OASys) system is a structured clinical assessment tool completed by the

    Offender Manager. It assesses the service users risk of reoffending and harm to themselves or

    others over the period of supervision. The Delius case management system records all relevant

    case management information including supervision contacts. Individuals considered to be at

    risk of suicide should be identified using the Delius risk to self-register which enables suicide

    risk to be highlighted to all relevant staff and agencies accessing the Delius record. An

    individual under probation supervision is required to maintain regular contact, including

    attending appointments with their probation Offender Manager as well as complying with all

    requirements of their order. Whilst under probation supervision, service users are helped to

    identify the causes of their offending behaviour and ways of avoiding reoffending. Offender

    Managers must enforce supervision requirements according to a statutory enforcement

    framework. This includes issuing warning letters for failure to comply and instigating breach

    proceedings through the courts, within a clearly specified timeframe, in line with national

    requirements at the time.

    The meaning and value of offender supervision has been examined in detail across a number

    of countries (Durnescu 2008; Shapland et al 2012), not only identifying the different aspects

    of supervision, but also the different perspectives of practitioners and probation service users.

    Folkard et al. (1966) found that good rapport between probation officers and probation service

    users and maintaining the same officer were related to more positive outcomes. Conversely

    high levels of control exercised over probation service users were related to failure. Evaluation

    of training developed in the UK to enhance probation staff skills in engaging with service users

    (the Skills for Effective Engagement, Development and Supervision (SEEDS) programme)

  • reported particular perceived benefits in engagement with service users with alcohol problems

    and those with domestic violence offences (Sorsby et al 2013). These are factors that are often

    associated with increased suicidal risk, demonstrating the important role that probation

    supervision can play in managing vulnerable offenders Pratt et al (2010) reported that

    prisoners in England & Wales the UK who died by suicide following release into the

    community, had lower levels of contact with probation staff prior to their deaths. This suggests

    that effective supervision practice may be able to make a significant contribution to suicide

    prevention in probation service users.

    The challenges faced by probation staff in actively engaging service users with the supervision

    process are important in understanding and reducing suicidal behaviour. In-depth interviews

    with a small sample of probation staff highlighted the challenges of supervising vulnerable

    probation service users who had survived a near-lethal suicide (Mackenzie, Cartwright, Beck,

    Borrill, 2015) and recommended mandatory suicide prevention training for all staff. Cook &

    Borrill (2015) analysed 38,910 client records in England & Walesthe UK, concluding that

    probation officers recognised the importance of previous suicidal behaviours, psychiatric

    treatment, depression, and current relationship problems as risk factors for suicide, but were

    less likely to record suicidal risk associated with alcohol misuse or loss of social support.

    It is also important to understand the differences between offenders under community

    supervision and those in custody due to the different settings and levels of access to support.

    Prisons have a legal duty to protect prisoners from harm and to some extent to reduce access

    to specific methods of suicide, for example monitoring access to substances that could cause

    overdose or removing ligature points from safer cells. Due to contextual differences, the level

    and frequency of probation supervision and monitoring is inevitably lower in the community

  • than in prisons or APs, and access to metho


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